My client was a strong leader with a track record of leading billion-dollar businesses. She was articulate. She spoke with conviction. But she’d been given feedback that she was intimidating. She started to smile more often, but she was still getting feedback that she was intimidating.
Now, part of the reason may be the unfair scrutiny that women face when they exercise power, but it might also be that her audience viewed her smile to be fake. After all, a smile isn’t a band-aid you can stick on your face.
So how do you understand when someone might see your smile as fake?
You smile for too long
A genuine smile is fleeting. When you give a fake smile–chances are, you’ll hold it for many seconds, and even minutes.
Try this experiment: Stand in front of a mirror and smile for 1 minute. Do you feel tight, tense, or even a little tired? Do you find it challenging to smile consciously for even a minute? When you do smile unknowingly, you could go on for minutes, and you don’t even notice (similar to jiggling your legs under pressure). But, while you may not be paying attention, your audience will be. They’ll see your behavior, your smile, and your jiggling leg as an overt expression of discomfort and anxiety–not the honest expression of warmth and openness that you want to portray.
To have a genuine smile, rather than trying hard, try exhaling gently. By learning to let go of your breath, you’ll let go of your energy and allow your genuine smile to shine through.
Your smile is flat
A fake smile is like a door, not a window. Like a door, a phony smile blocks and stops the energy from getting through.
A genuine smile is like a window allowing those warm rays of feeling to come through. You can’t just see a smile. You have to feel it, just like watching a fire burning on your big screen. You see the logs glowing. You hear the logs crackling, but it’s not the real deal.
So rather than forcing yourself to smile, think of images like the pleasure of warm raindrops falling in your face on a hot summer day. Genuine feelings produce genuine smiles.
Your smile doesn’t reflect what you’re saying
When your audience sees you smiling and doesn’t know why, your smile comes across as random. It doesn’t connect with what you’re saying. Here’s an example: You’re giving an update about your project. You provide that same update, with different numbers, every month. You know you have to show conviction and confidence, and be in the moment.
But what happens in the middle of your presentations? Your thoughts wander. Your mouth keeps going, your words keep coming out, and all of a sudden, you have a sudden flash of memory–you remember that wonderful feeling of a wave running over your toes on the beach and you smile. Yes, this is technically a genuine reflection of that beautiful feeling, but the fact that you’re smiling as you’re discussing performance shows that you’re not fully engaged in what you’re saying. Your smile comes across as confusing, out of sync, fake.
The big challenge is to stay in the moment. Think about what you’re saying as you’re saying it. If you can’t stay engaged, how in the world will your audience stay engaged? Genuine smiles come from real engagement.
It’s easy to use a smile as a band-aid, but don’t do that and risk your audience not taking you seriously. Instead, focus on exhaling, opening up, and concentrating. Your smiles will come across as genuine, and you’ll authentically project warmth and openness.
This article has been updated to correct the author’s explanation of what happens when you smile genuinely.